Oracle, users tout clustering features in database

Some users are claiming the latest generation of Oracle Corp.'s database can help cut costs and boost scalability and performance through its new clustering features. At least one analyst, however, said there are technical hurdles to overcome before these benefits are realized.

At its OpenWorld database conference here yesterday, Oracle hosted a session where several IT professionals detailed their use of Real Application Clusters (RAC). The technology is an add-on to the Oracle 9i database enterprise edition product and allows users to run the application over multiple servers as if it were on a single box. It also permits load balancing and transparent fail-over, Oracle executives said, adding that users can enjoy increased scalability without having to add extra hardware or personnel to manage the system.

At Vector SCM, a Portland, Ore.-based logistics provider, 9i RAC is expected to save an estimated US$1.5 million in hardware costs when it goes live early next year, said David Brown, the company's enterprise integration and emerging technology architect. The reason is that 9i RAC will let him distribute the application over two IBM RS/6000 servers instead of having to buy a single larger box or add more CPUs. Vector currently runs Oracle's 8i database, but has been testing 9i RAC since last October. Brown said it took one week to do the configuration for the testing and since then, the company has been trying to "break" the application.

He noted that with 8i, which has the Oracle Parallel Server (OPS) feature, the application only permits him to run the database on a single server, while the connected box is idle. He said that in testing with the 9iRAC, he has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of transactions that the new system can handle. Additionally, the 9iRAC testing cluster will enable him to add more users to the system without having to worry about buying more servers. "I can't just go out and get a 24-processor machine," he said. With his company's growing demands, buying 9i RAC "was a no-brainer."

To get the 9i RAC running in the test environment only required a single patch to ensure interoperability with Compaq Computer Corp.'s AlphaServer hardware, said John Benzinger, vice president of IT at Free Markets Inc. The Pittsburgh-based firm, which provides software and services for electronic marketplaces, has been live with 9i RAC for a week. Benzinger noted that with 8i, if the live server crashes, he has to boot up the backup server and get it running, which can be time-consuming. However, with 9i RAC, if one server in the cluster crashes, it would automatically fail-over to its mate with no disruption of service to users.

"Our goal is for the user to experience no downtime," he said. He added that the software comes with enhanced clustering features that 8i lacked, so he doesn't haven't to write custom code for it.

However, there are some caveats, according to one analyst. It's still too early to make a judgment on the 9i RAC feature, because the database product has only recently been released and has limited adoption among Oracle users, said James Governor, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. He added that there could be hardware limitations to overcome. The most interesting rollouts so far have been on Compaq servers, which already have extensive clustering capabilities built into them, Governor said, while there might have to be some tinkering to see similar benefits on Hewlett-Packard Co. servers to get the same performance.

This technology may conceptually be desirable, but it would only apply to the largest users and may not be necessary given the current economic climate, noted one user, a database manager at a network hardware manufacturer who asked to remain anonymous. His firm, an Oracle 8i shop considering an upgrade to 9i, is in lock-down mode on IT spending. "With the economy, we don't need anything more right now," he said. "We're being told to make do with what we have. We'd love to be in a position were we had to use [9i RAC]."

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